Some of the most popular subreddits on Reddit have “gone dark” this week in protest of the company’s hand-off policy with misinformation and anti-vaxxer online bullying, and Wednesday, Reddit did at least ban one of the worst offenders.
You would not expect to find much COVID-19 misinformation and anti-vaccine posts on Reddit forums with names like r/PokemonGo, r/StarTrekPicard, or r/pretzels. Yet the moderators of those forms have recently been besieged with COVID misinformation posts, particularly since this horse medication Ivermectin became the de rigeur therapy among vaccine denialists. (This will only get worse with the breaking news that Joe Rogan has COVID, and is medicating himself with the horse goo.)
Moderators, known as “mods”, are taking the next-level step of hitting Reddit where it hurts the most — cutting off traffic to their forums, known as “subreddits.” Gizmodo reports that more than 100 subreddits have gone dark this week, not deleting their groups, but switching their settings to Private so that no one outside the group can post, or even view posts within that group.
Above we see an example of a subreddit that has gone dark, that of Youtube pop culture pundit Hbomberguy, which declares, “r/Hbomberguy is joining our brother subreddits and will go private until the Reddit administration removes vaccine misinformation subreddits from Reddit. We cannot remain open and also keep our consciences clear. We encourage users of all subreddits to petition your moderators to do the same.”
It’s not just vaccine misinformation that has the moderators up in arms, but the practice of “brigading,” which is the coordinated mass harassment and bullying directed at other subreddits, organized on the anti-vaxxer subreddits.
Reddit’s initial response to the complaint was absolute weak sauce, a Zuckerbergian “Steve Bannon saying to behead people is just free speech” abdication. “Dissent is a part of Reddit and the foundation of democracy,” Reddit CEO Steve Huffman wrote last Wednesday. “Reddit is a place for open and authentic discussion and debate. This includes conversations that question or disagree with popular consensus. This includes conversations that criticize those that disagree with the majority opinion. This includes protests that criticize or object to our decisions on which communities to ban from the platform.”
Yet today, Day Three of the great subreddit dark-out, he’s changed his tune. A COVID denial subreddit called r/NoNewNormal had been emboldened by the perceived win, and their brigading got out of control.
“Claims of ‘brigading’ are common and often hard to quantify,” Huffman wrote in a post early this afternoon. “However, in this case, we found very clear signals indicating that r/NoNewNormal was the source of around 80 brigades in the last 30 days (largely directed at communities with more mainstream views on COVID or location-based communities that have been discussing COVID restrictions). This behavior continued even after a warning was issued from our team to the Mods. r/NoNewNormal is the only subreddit in our list of high signal subs where we have identified this behavior and it is one of the largest sources of community interference we surfaced as part of this work (we will be investigating a few other unrelated subreddits as well).”
This is encouraging, and some subreddits have turned the light back on. r/PokemonGo is live again, with moderators saying, “We have decided to reopen. Whether you agree or not with the [going dark] measure, it cannot be said that it did not work. Voices are always stronger together, and as we were directly impacted by the actions of these bad acting communities, we decided to help lead the charge.”
So yes, Reddit did shut down one of its worst offenders, and group like r/PokemonGo have returned. But when it comes to bad players on that platform, it seems unlikely Reddit will catch ‘em all.
Image: Brett Jordan via Unsplash